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Sunday, February 27, 2022

South Korea records its deadliest day of the pandemic.

South Korea records its deadliest day of the pandemic.

Daily Covid Briefing

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People waiting in line at a coronavirus testing site in Seoul on Saturday.
Ryu Hyung-Seok/Yonhap, via Associated Press

“South Korea faced its deadliest day yet of the pandemic, reporting 112 deaths in a 24-hour period, as the nation battles a coronavirus surge fueled by the Omicron variant. Health authorities reported that there were 643 patients hospitalized in severe or critical condition on Saturday, up from 408 patients a week earlier.

The surge in South Korea, currently one of the worst in the world, intensified over the last week, reaching a record of 171,452 cases in a single day on Wednesday. Since then, case numbers have remained at a high level, with the government reporting 166,207 cases on Saturday. South Korea, a nation of about 50 million people, is now reporting more cases each day than the United States, a once unimaginable development.

Despite having 86 percent of its people fully vaccinated, according to Our World in Data, South Korea has recorded a 201 percent increase in the average of daily cases over the past two weeks.

Source: Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) at Johns Hopkins University. The daily average is calculated with data that was reported in the last seven days.

According to a senior health official, Lee Ki-il, who spoke at a briefing on Friday, the government has plans to secure additional hospital beds in March. He added that the government and the medical community were doing their best to “provide no inconveniences to the public.” Mr. Lee said that the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency was prepared to take in and treat up to 2,000 patients with severe cases of Covid-19.

The government has responded to the surge by focusing on the detection of the virus in high-risk groups — those in their 60s and older, as well as people with pre-existing medical conditions — and treating only the most critical cases. The majority of people who test positive are being asked to simply look after themselves at home.

That is part of the government’s new approach of learning to live with the virus. Starting in March, those who live with people who have tested positive will no longer be required to quarantine, regardless of their vaccination status. Previously, unvaccinated people were required to quarantine for seven days if someone in their household tested positive.

Meridith Kohut for The New York Times

A caravan of truckers that left California for Washington, D.C., on Friday to protest coronavirus mandates arrived in Las Vegas early Saturday with only five trucks in its ranks, the organizers said, prompting them to scrap the convoy and direct members to merge with other anti-mandate groups heading to the capital.

The caravan, named Freedom Convoy USA 2022, was one of several in the United States, modeled after the Canadian protests, that drove off this weektoward Washington to demand, among other things, an end to the pandemic national emergency that began in March 2020, and an end to government rules requiring masks and vaccinations.

According to its Facebook page, the Freedom Convoy’s route started in Los Angeles on Friday and was scheduled to make stops in Salt Lake City, Denver and other major cities before arriving in Washington on March 1 in time for President Biden’s State of the Union address. But it appeared that the group couldn’t hold on to its supporters for long.

“There are two other convoys that have massive turnouts, and are in progress to the D.C. area as we speak,” the organizers wrote on Facebook early Saturday, referring to two groups called the People’s Convoy and the Texas Convoy.

“We are making the decision to send any truckers planned to meet at our routes to start heading to D.C. for the event on the National Mall, or to join the convoys named above as they are about to merge into one,” the organizers wrote.

Thomas Peter/Reuters

Scientists released a pair of extensive studies that point to a market in Wuhan, China, as the origin of the coronavirus pandemic. 

Analyzing data from a variety of sources, they concluded that the coronavirus was very likely present in live mammals sold in the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in late 2019 and suggested that the virus twice spilled over into people working or shopping there. They said they found no support for an alternate theory that the coronavirus escaped from a laboratory in Wuhan.

“When you look at all of the evidence together, it’s an extraordinarily clear picture that the pandemic started at the Huanan market,” said Michael Worobey, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Arizona and a co-author of both studies.

The two reports, released Saturday, have not yet been published in a scientific journal that would require undergoing peer review.

Together, they represent a significant salvo in the debate over the beginnings of a pandemic that has killed some 6 million people globally and sickened more than 400 million. The question of whether the coronavirus outbreak began with a spillover from wildlife sold at the market, a leak from a Wuhan virology lab or some other way has given rise to pitched geopolitical battles and debates over how best to stop the next pandemic.

Nati Harnik/Associated Press

Berkshire Hathaway will hold its annual shareholders meeting in person this April, after having staged the event virtually since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic — but those attending will be required to show proof of a coronavirus vaccination, the company said.

The annual meeting, long known as “Woodstock for Capitalists,” has usually drawn tens of thousands of Berkshire shareholders to Omaha for the chance to hear directly from Warren E. Buffett, the company’s billionaire chief executive, for hours.

“As part of our commitment to the health and safety of our shareholders, proof of Covid-19 vaccination will be required to attend the 2022 annual meeting and the Berkshire Bazaar of Bargains,” the company said, adding that it had partnered with CLEAR Health Pass “to help make your entry to the annual meeting seamless.”

“For international attendees and shareholders who do not use the CLEAR app, we will have marked doors for you to provide proof of Covid-19 vaccination and proper identification,” the company said. “Digital or hard copy of your Covid-19 vaccination record will be required.”

The requirement was tucked into Berkshire’s annual report to shareholders released on Saturday, which revealed a nearly $90 billion in profit for 2021 and which included a letter from Mr. Buffett stressing the influential role that the company played in the United States economy.

Karsten Moran for The New York Times

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has created a straightforward online tool that can help people see whether their area is at high, medium or low community risk for the coronavirus, the deciding factor in the new guidelines the agency released on Friday.

With the huge wave of Omicron-driven cases, hospitalizations and deaths receding across the United States, the new C.D.C. guidance is aimed at helping more communities get back to a semblance of normality, by gauging the need for pandemic restrictions like mask wearing and social distancing by county.

The guidance is not binding, so local mask requirements may still apply, and the federal mask requirement on mass transit and air travel remains in place until at least March 18. However, some states had few restrictions to begin with, and many state and local governments had already eased many restrictions, including on masks. The C.D.C.’s move is likely to prompt more such moves.

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the C.D.C.’s director, warned Americans not to let down their guard entirely. “We want to give people a break from things like masking when our levels are low, and then have the ability to reach for them again should things get worse in the future,” she said as she announced the new guidance on Friday. “We need to be prepared, and we need to be ready for whatever comes next.”

Under the agency’s previous criteria, close to 95 percent of U.S. counties were considered high risk. Using the new criteria — new Covid-related hospital admissions, the percentage of hospital beds occupied by Covid patients and new coronavirus cases per 100,000 people — less than 30 percent of the population is in high-risk areas.

Kin Cheung/Associated Press

HONG KONG — The authorities in Hong Kong said they would allow some children testing positive for the coronavirus to remain at home, rather than be separated from their parents and hospitalized, after a public outcry from families across the city.

Some Hong Kong families had despaired over strict Covid-19 rules that required even toddlers to be taken away from their parents and isolated, prompting some families to leave the city.

Hong Kong long had an enviable record in suppressing the coronavirus with a “dynamic zero” Covid policy, in line with that on mainland China. But with an Omicron wave overwhelming the city, the steps that saved lives are now making life unbearable for many of its 7.4 million people. The city announced a record 10,000 daily cases on Friday, with some experts predicting 180,000 cases per day in March.

Source: Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) at Johns Hopkins University. The daily average is calculated with data that was reported in the last seven days.

The Hospital Authority in Hong Kong said late on Friday that not all children who test positive for the virus would be required to go to the hospital.

Watchara Phomicinda/The Orange County Register, via Associated Press

Gov. Gavin Newsom of California lifted many executive orders related to the pandemic on Friday, as Covid-19 cases and hospitalizations there continue to drop, but he maintained California’s state of emergency.

Under the governor’s action, 19 of the remaining provisions will be terminated immediately, with an additional 18 to be lifted at the end of March and 15 to expire at the end of June. 

The state has dropped numerous executive orders since last summer. With the latest rollbacks, just 5 percent of the state’s pandemic-related executive orders will remain in place, including those that maintain the state’s testing and vaccination programs and that protect hospital and health center capacity, such as by allowing for expanded telehealth services. Other remaining provisions maintain some Covid workplace safety standards.

“As we move the state’s recovery forward, we’ll continue to focus on scaling back provisions while maintaining essential testing, vaccination and health care system supports that ensure California has the needed tools and flexibility to strategically adapt our response for what lies ahead,” Mr. Newsom said in a statement.

The order does not lift California’s state of emergency despite recent calls to do so by Republican legislators. In a resolution to end the state of emergency that senators will debate in a hearing next month, legislators wrote that “an open-ended state of emergency, with boundless powers vested in a chief executive, is incompatible with democratic government.”

Kenny Holston for The New York Times

Kerry Kennedy remembers how much she admired her older brother Robert as they grew up in Hickory Hill, the family estate in McLean, Va. She still talks about how he brought her along to ford streams, crawl through drainpipes and catch frogs and snakes, ignoring his friends who did not want a 6-year-old girl tagging behind on their outdoor adventures.

“He was an extraordinary older brother,” she said the other day. “He’s brilliant, he’s well read, he cares deeply, he is extremely charismatic. He has as a childlike buoyancy and lightness to him. He’s a beautiful person in a million different ways.

“And then he has this.”

Nearly 60 years after Bobby brought his sister along for the excursions into the woods, the son and namesake of Robert F. Kennedy, the New York senator, attorney general and Democratic presidential candidate assassinated on June 5, 1968, has become an unimaginably polarizing figure in this tight-knit political family.

Once a top environmental lawyer who led the charge to clean up the Hudson River in New York, the third eldest child of Robert and Ethel Kennedy has emerged as a leading voice in the campaign to discredit coronavirus vaccines and other measures being advanced by the Biden White House to battle a pandemic that was, near the end of February, killing close to 1,900 people a day.

Stephanie Keith for The New York Times

The New York City Department of Education released school-level vaccination rates for the first time on Friday, showing gaping disparities between rich and poor neighborhoods.

Citywide, more than half of public school students are fully vaccinated, according to the data, and 59 percent of students ages 5 and up have received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine. But the data shows that the doses have been distributed very unequally.

In District 2 — which covers some of the wealthiest parts of Manhattan, including the Upper East Side and TriBeCa — 80 percent of students have received at least one dose, the highest rate in New York.

But in District 23 in Brooklyn, only 38 percent of students can say the same. That district, which includes Brownsville and part of East New York, is one of the poorest in the city and has the lowest vaccination rate in the school system.

Nationally, 26 percent of children ages 5 to 11 are fully vaccinated, as are 57 percent of people ages 12 to 17, according to a New York Times database. Most children became eligible for vaccinations late last year, but no vaccine has yet been authorized for those younger than 5.

Kenny Holston for The New York Times

More than half of people who took a rapid antigen test five to nine days after first testing positive for the coronavirus or after developing Covid-19 symptoms tested positive on the antigen test, according to a new study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The finding raises more concerns about the agency’s revised isolation guidelines, which say that many people with Covid can end their isolation periods after five days, without a negative coronavirus test, if they wear masks and take other precautions for another five days.

A C.D.C. scientist who was an author of the study said that he did not believe the agency’s isolation guidelines needed to change. But the results suggest that many people with the virus may still be infectious during this period, scientists said.

The study “demonstrates what a lot of people have suspected: that five days is insufficient for a substantial number of people,” Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization at the University of Saskatchewan, said in an email. “The bottom line,” she added, “is that this absolutely should lead to a change in isolation guidance.”

The research was conducted after Omicron became the dominant variant in the United States and as cases were surging nationwide. Cases have since fallen precipitously, reducing the risk of infection and the number of Americans who are in isolation.

Amir Hamja for The New York Times

Americans have collectively saved trillions of dollars since the pandemic began. But they aren’t exactly feeling flush with cash — and now there are signs that the pandemic-era savings boom may be coming to an end.

Savings soared during the first year of the pandemic as the federal government handed out hundreds of billions of dollars in unemployment benefits, economic impact payments and other forms of aid, and as households spent less on vacations, concerts and other in-person activities. The saving rate — the share of after-tax income that is invested or saved, rather than spent — topped 33 percent in April 2020 and remained elevated through late last year.

But the saving rate fell in the second half of 2021, returning roughly to its prepandemic level of about 7 percent last fall. In January, Americans saved just 6.4 percent of their after-tax income, the lowest monthly saving rate since 2013, as millions of employees lost hours because of the latest coronavirus wave, and this time the government did not step in to provide aid.

Still, Americans in the aggregate have roughly $2.7 trillion in “excess savings” accumulated since the pandemic began, by some estimates.

In a survey conducted this month for The New York Times by the online research firm Momentive, however, only 16 percent of respondents said they had more in savings than before the pandemic, and 50 percent said they had less. Among lower-income households, just 9 percent said they had more in savings, and 64 percent said they had less.“

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